Palatants are used to enhance the taste and odor of dog and cat foods. Consumers are drawn in by advertising on labels touting "filet-mignon flavored" or "wild-salmon flavor", when in reality, filet mignon and salmon are not even ingredients in the pet food. The palatants are added to give off the distinctive taste and smell.
They can be meat or vegetable based, and may be designed to meet a variety of claims (grain-free, limited ingredient, non-GMO, natural, low fat, etc.). Palatant science has evolved over the years. Single-sourced animal protein presents a challenge to pet food manufacturers in terms of palatant application. To support the claim for a single source of animal protein, the company must apply a palatant made with the same specific protein. In response, companies have developed palatants made with plant proteins. Palatants are used more often in kibble than in canned products. Palatants may be a combination of refined animal fat, lard, used restaurant grease, and other oils that are sometimes considered too rancid or inedible for human consumption. The fat may be a by-product of rendering, or melting down animal carcasses using high heat or enzymes.
These provide the distinctive smell that wafts from a newly-opened bag of kibble. However, restaurant waste oils from cooking and fats from rendering undergo oxidation, producing free radicals, trans fatty acids, and other toxins. Oxidation causes inflammation. Fats store drugs and chemicals; one notable drug that has been found recently in pet food being pentobarbital.
Palatant components may include not only proteins—derived from animal sources like poultry, pork, fish and vegetable sources like corn, soy, potato and specialty grains—but also yeasts, phosphates, antioxidants, antimicrobials, processing agents and other ingredients. Chemicals called pyrophosphates are used to coat dry cat food, and are often referred to in the processed pet food industry as “cat crack". Mixing pyrophosphates (phosphate salts) with meat hydrolysates is an effective way to entice cats to eat dry food that they otherwise would not go near.
Animal Digest may also be utilized. Animal digest is liquefied slaughterhouse leftovers and can vary in the same food from batch to batch. True palatants, in the ingredient panel as natural flavors, are scientifically formulated and don't change from batch to batch. Digest is an industry euphemism for a soup of partially-dissolved intestines, livers, lungs and miscellaneous organs of animals, produced using various enzymes and acids. The precise ingredients used are trade secrets, which, in differing combinations, produce varying flavors. Batches considered to taste more like beef can transform a can of miscellaneous body parts into “Beef Stew”, while those considered more “fishy” may result in “Wild Salmon” and so on. Digest is probably the most important factor discovered in recent years for enhancing the taste of dry food.
Sodium bisulfate is another sprayed on additive that may be present in pet food. This is an acid that effectively kills Salmonella bacteria over a period of days to weeks. Sodium bisulfate is used primarily to lower pH. For technical-grade applications, it is used in metal finishing, cleaning products, and to lower the pH of water for effective chlorination in swimming pools and hot tubs. Sodium bisulfate has reportedly caused many allergic reactions in humans, particularly those with asthma.
Personally, I think I will continue to feed my pets whole foods without a bunch of chemicals added for flavoring. I'm not concerned with advertising and my animals don't need to be enticed to eat their food. Real meat, real organs, real produce - real results. Healthy pets!